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Carol Carlson: Opening the doors at Laguna’s youth shelter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Waymakers Laguna Beach Youth Shelter (formerly Community Services Programs) will celebrate 40 years of service this year. The six-bed shelter for youths between the ages of 11 and 17 supports youths and their families who are in crisis. Carol Carlson is the shelter’s Program Director, Children’s Crisis Residential Program, a position she has held for the last 10 years. That she spends her days (and sometimes nights) working with youths in crisis is still somewhat surprising to this former banker whose involvement with the shelter began as a volunteer over 20 years ago. “If you had told me then that I’d be doing this now, I would not have believed it,” says Carlson energetically. And yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point,” she adds. 

A first ever open house for the youth shelter on March 14th

I was fortunate enough to visit Carlson at the Laguna Beach shelter. For obvious reasons, it isn’t a place that is generally open to the public to tour. However, to celebrate their 40 years and as a thank you to the community for their support, Carlson is hosting an open house at the shelter on March 14 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is the first time such an event will be held at the shelter. There will be a shuttle running from the Neighborhood Congregational Church all day as parking is tight. “We work really hard to be a good neighbor,” says Carlson.

Over the shelter’s 40 years, the mission has never changed

While being a good neighbor is important to Carlson and staff, their primary mission is to help youths in crisis. In its 40 years that mission has not changed. However, the crises the kids face have definitely evolved, according to Carlson. She handed me a sheet of paper documenting the changes over the last four decades. 

Carol Carlson close up

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Carol Carlson has been with the Waymakers Laguna Beach youth shelter for 20 years. She is currently the Program Director, Children’s Crisis and Residential Program.

Same mission, different issues

From 1979-89, the shelter’s clients were split 50/50 boys and girls. Most were runaways referred by law enforcement and cigarette smoking was the substance of choice. After two weeks, 91 percent of the kids were reunited with their parents.

From 1990-2000, the shelter served more kids coming from single-family households. There was still a 50/50 split between boys and girls, and it was middle schools and high schools that were making the majority of the referrals. Drug education became a bigger part of the group topics, yet still 90 percent of the children were reunited with their families after two weeks.

Dealing with a rise in mental illness

As Carlson writes, “The millennium brought about new challenges.” By 2006 most referrals were for children with mental illnesses. Another shelter was opened in Huntington Beach to help accommodate the growing wait list. A shift in the balance began to occur with 65 percent female and 35 percent male referrals. The length of stay grew to three weeks with a 94 percent success rate (defined as reunification with families).

By 2010 referrals grew even more, prompting the opening of a third shelter in Tustin. Most of the children, now a 75 percent/25 percent split in favor of girls, have been diagnosed with depression and have either attempted or threatened to attempt suicide. Carlson explains that the gender shift does not indicate that girls are faring worse than boys. “Girls are more likely to seek help,” she says. “And males use more lethal means.” 

Carol Carlson bike

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The Laguna Beach shelter will be opening its doors to the public for the first time in 40 years

The importance of asking for help

Carlson states this harrowing piece of information in the matter of fact manner of someone who deals with these tragedies on a daily basis. The good news is that when help is asked for, the end result is 90 percent positive at all three shelters run by Waymakers. This means that over 300 kids and 800 of their family members are positively impacted by this intervention. And that’s what keeps Carlson going. “It gives me a lot of personal growth,” she says of her work at the shelter. “As long as the kids are out there, I want to keep doing this.”

Helping families feel stronger

So, why this alarming trend to depression and suicide? It’s a nation-wide problem and much has been written and debated on the subject. Carlson refers to Dr. Bruce Perry, “one of my rock stars,” as she describes him, to help explain the alarming trend. “He talks about how lonely people are these days,” she explains. “We came from tribes. It used to be that one child was surrounded by four adults. Now it’s the other way around. People move away from family for different reasons. When you’re alone with a teenager who’s struggling, it’s really tough. I have a lot of empathy. We have to help them feel strong.”

And that’s what the shelter does. The children are there on a voluntary basis and they must abide by very strict rules. Carlson says that most of the kids thrive under the rules. However, sometimes they prove too onerous and those kids leave before their three-week time is up. There is a mandatory family component as well with family session twice a week. “Sometimes the parents see their kids more when they’re here than they did when they were at home,” says Carlson.

These kids crave structure

Simple things, like group dinners around the shelter’s sturdy wooden table, can be transformative, explains Carlson. For a lot of different reasons a lot of the kids aren’t getting that kind of interaction at home and they crave it. “I’m amazed by how many kids want a copy of our schedule and rules when they leave. They thrive with that kind of structure.”

Carlson helps the kids and, in turn, they have helped her

Such lessons have helped Carlson in her own parenting life. “Everything I learned, I learned from these kids,” she says. In addition to teaching her a lot, working at the shelter also helped her own children learn compassion. “They learned that no one would choose this. My children developed a compassion for people who are struggling.”

Carol Carlson crafts

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With all electronics banned, except computers for schoolwork, things like crafts are an important activity at the shelter

Ultimately, Carlson says, whether it’s her kids or the kids who arrive at the shelter, they all want the same thing. “They just want to feel loved. A lot of kids tell me they feel very lonely. When they’re teens, they push you away, but they don’t really want you to go. It’s a push/pull.” And that’s why the shelter doesn’t allow any electronics – at all – and there are a lot of group activities, in addition to helping families learn how to reconnect with one another.

Avoiding burnout after 20 years

The programs in place have proven effective, but it’s the people behind the programs that make Waymakers the success it is. Front and center to that success is Carlson. She talks fast and with passion. She is matter of fact but compassionate. And she has managed to avoid burnout after 20 years. Her approach is telling.

Celebrating the challenges

“I celebrate when I see a challenging kid,” says Carlson. “We’ve served thousands of kids,” she explains. “Some are tough. Some are sweet. Most are in between. They are all in crisis. Our job is to get them to breathe.” The rules, the break from things like social media, the counseling, and just being out of what has become a tense home environment works 90 percent of the time. For the other 10 percent Carlson says that, for the most part, the kids just aren’t ready yet. She will be there when they are.

Carol Carlson games

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The kids at the shelter have access to a lot of games, musical instruments, and crafts to help them learn to “breathe”

Waymakers is funded through grants, public funding, donations, and fundraising. As for creating public awareness, it’s a tricky balancing act for Carlson. She is torn between wanting people to know about the shelters and the important work they do while also maintaining the strict confidentiality such facilities require.

“I don’t want people showing up on our doorstep,” she says. “However, I want people to know about us. I always say we’re the best kept secret in Laguna.” 

Well, that secret is opening its doors on March 14. To read about the shelters’ good work is one thing. To come see the place that kids in crisis call home for a few precious weeks is definitely something else.

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